WESTOVER — An increase in two of Somerset County’s five pay scales in response to an increase in minimum wage left out not only executive level employees but uniformed deputies and correctional officers — leaving them perplexed and contemplating grievances or leaving county service altogether.
Since January 2020 Maryland has been raising the minimum wage annually until large employers pay $15 per hour starting Jan. 1, 2025. This year the increase was 75 cents or 6.8% to $11.75.
To cover the increases from January 2020 and ’21, the county raised by 8.9% the rates of pay for the two lowest wage scales and it was reflected in paychecks distributed on Jan. 22.
That left some 90 employees not seeing an increase because they are at an executive level or assigned to one of the other three pay scales, said Sharon Muir, the county’s internal auditor.
The pay scales where there was no change included certified uniformed personnel at the Sheriff’s Office and Detention Center, Ms. Muir said.
Those held back in this round will be adjusted during the next budget cycle, she said, which starts July 1.
“This is something we’ll have to wrangle with until 2025,” said Doug Taylor, county administrator, who along with Ms. Muir met with Sheriff Ronnie Howard and Chief Deputy Paul Keplinger on Feb. 9 and will meet with them again.
In addition to losing out on this raise they want to express what deputies see as disparities in their pay and have that information presented to the County Commissioners for budgeting.
Sheriff Howard said when his deputies became aware of the raises the reaction was to “en masse” follow the employee handbook and file grievances with the county. Dissatisfaction among the ranks is concerning enough but the sheriff also has trouble with hiring and retention. He has deputies now under contract because they were put through the police academy at county expense and when they are released from their terms of service they may look for jobs elsewhere, he said.
At least two are in the process of being considered by the State Police, “and one of them graduated number one in the class,” he said. “If it’s not addressed, and we can’t recruit and retain people, we’re going to have to hire people that should not be law enforcement officers. That’s just reality.”
Another reality is, certified police and correctional officers “can go anywhere” because there are not enough credentialed personnel to go around. The sheriff has a part-time vacancy for court, and no one in the current academy class.
As a small business owner First Sgt. Ray Johns said he understands the county’s predicament. He knows you can’t hire someone at minimum wage and not adjust the pay for long-time employees. If you don’t, “eventually, they will be equal to everybody who’s been there 15 years.”
“Yes, it costs more money but everybody” has to get a raise, he said. “You have to do it if you want to keep people.”
Deputies, corrections and 911 dispatchers were three groups of employees that worked at their stations during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but First Sgt. Johns said only the latter received the increase. “None of them stayed home” or could tele-work, he said. “You want to talk about a slap in the face? You’re told you’re appreciated but that’s a heckuva way to show it.”
In his analysis of base pay the first sergeant said “at face value” it’s not too bad but as that increased to be competitive it compressed wages for senior personnel.
He is one who would like step and grade increases examined and adjusted accordingly.
Deputies when they become certified begin to receive an additional $7,500 per year for hazardous duty pay. There was a time when raises were on base pay only, and did not include the $7,500 but that was remedied by the County Commissioners in FY19. Ms. Muir said, “We pushed to do that” because it was the right thing to do.
Along with salary the Sheriff’s Office wants its retirement plan transferred to LEOPS, the Law Enforcement Officers’ Pension System. Chief Deputy Keplinger said a third attempt will be made for this and the application has been submitted which would require analysis by an actuary, a cost of $6,000.
“It’s amazing to me how far behind we are,” he said about retirement. “We have the potential to do more with lateral employment if we had LEOPS.”
Sheriff Howard agreed with that assessment saying officers may work for less money if LEOPS is in place. Locally the Worcester Sheriff’s Office, Princess Anne, Fruitland, Pocomoke City and Salisbury police departments have LEOPS.
He said changes with salary and benefits will strengthen the department, but in the immediate future he hopes he can hang on to the employees he has and fill vacancies with highly qualified individuals.
As the elected sheriff, however, Howard has nothing to gain personally with this issue as his salary is set by the General Assembly.